A/N: This angsty little piece came to me late one restless night, and would not leave me alone until I wrote it down. Originally, it was intended to be a one-shot, but quickly became apparent that it would be too long for that, so it looks like it will total out to about four chapters. I didn't know what to call Jesse's wife, but I've seen the name Martha used a few times in fan fiction and it seems to suit her, so I hope I'm not stepping on any toes by using it here.
This story is drama, not much action or comedy, but a lot of angst. For my own ease in writing, I decided to forgo the usual presence of the balladeer/narrator. I know, not typical Dukes of Hazzard style, but I'm no good at narration pieces, so please forgive that point.
I have no set time period for this story. Suffice to say that it is some years after the series ended, yet not too far down the road. The boys have completed their probation and married, but Flash and Maudine are still alive. Most of the familiar characters make an appearance, but this is primarily Luke.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Dukes of Hazzard or its characters, and I have accepted no compensation for this story. It is presented solely for the enjoyment of the readers and myself. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Guilt-ridden and grief-stricken over the death of his wife, Luke almost makes a fatal mistake. Rated T for mild language and references.
Luke Duke stood quietly near the door of his uncle's old house, observing the gathering of mourners and friends who had come to pay their respects to his late wife and their condolences to him. The tiny house was filled to capacity, and was so crowded that it was difficult to move from one point to another without brushing up against someone else. The only place where there was some breathing room was near the door, where Luke had retreated in an attempt to escape the confining quality of the crowd. The last time the house had been this full was when his Aunt Martha had passed away.
Most of the guests, dressed in their Sunday finest, milled about the living room, exchanging greetings and remembrances, while others moved into the kitchen, where gifts of food had been spread on the table for all to partake. The small kitchen table was completely covered with casseroles, a huge baked ham, mountains of sweet potatoes and collard greens, homemade bread, a platter of golden fried chicken, and more pies and cakes than he could count. The sight of it was enough to turn his stomach.
Across the room, his cousin Bo was engaged in conversation with their old friend, Cooter Davenport, Hazzard's only auto mechanic. Rarely seen out of his oil-and-grease-stained work clothes, Cooter had shaved and cleaned himself up for the funeral, wearing clean trousers with a dress shirt and a tie, which he frequently tugged at in an apparent effort to breathe. Bo's lovely wife, Lisa Mae, was seated in one of the easy chairs near her husband.
Luke's eyes drifted lower to Lisa Mae's abdomen, swollen with the life that slumbered there, and he wistfully recalled the day that he and Bo had exchanged the news that their wives were pregnant. "Our youngin's can grow up playin' t'gether, like we done!" Bo had exclaimed happily. Lisa Mae would likely give birth within the next month, and Luke could only hope that her labor would go more smoothly and have a happier end than Cindy's.
With a sigh, his gaze traveled onward, settling on Deputy Enos Strate, who sat on the sofa with a big goofy grin on his face as he cooed at the newborn infant on his lap. Luke's cousin Daisy sat on his right side, leaning on his shoulder as she smiled at the tiny infant.
Deputy Cletus Hogg sat on her other side. "Ain't he just the purdiest thing?" he was saying.
"Boys ain't pretty, Cletus," Enos told him. "But he sure is the handsomest thing I ever did see!"
Uncle Jesse, the family patriarch, sat on the arm of the sofa on Enos's left, one finger gently stroking the baby's soft cheek. "That boy's a Duke through and through!" he said, proudly. "Look at that head o' hair! Just like his daddy. I had despaired of ever seein' youngin's t' carry on the family name before the good lord called me home, but this'n was definitely worth the wait. And we got another'n on the way!" he added, giving a wink to Lisa Mae.
Luke avoided looking at baby, and he heaved another sigh as he lowered his eyes until he was gazing at the worn rug that covered the floor of Jesse's living room. But he wasn't seeing the woven fabric; instead, the events that had led to this gathering replayed in his mind. It was his own son, the child conceived through the love he and Cindy had shared, yet he had difficulty accepting the reality that Cindy had died bringing the new life into the world.
Only two days ago, he had been in the delivery room ecstatically coaching Cindy through her arduous labor as she struggled to give birth to their son. What should have been a joyous occasion had suddenly turned into the worst day of his life when something had gone horribly wrong. The baby had been born in an alarming gush of bright red blood, and Luke had been hastily ushered from the room by a nurse while the doctors performed emergency surgery in an effort to save Cindy's life. Their efforts had failed. Numb with shock and grief, Luke had listened as the doctor had spoken in a solemn and professional tone. "She had an imperfection in the lining of her uterus, which resulted in a rupture during the strain of delivery. It's very rare," he had said. "But it does sometimes happen. Usually, the rupture can be repaired or a hysterectomy performed, but in your wife's case the bleeding was too severe and too abrupt. She went into shock, and could not be revived. I'm very sorry."
"I'm very sorry." It was a phrase Luke had heard many times over the past two days, but it did nothing to bring him comfort. Cindy, the love of his life, was gone forever. No consoling words or sympathetic glances would bring her back or ease the pain of his loss. Even now, with his eyes riveted on the floor, he was aware of the covertly pitying glances from the men and women in the room who had noticed his lowered gaze. He knew that if he glanced up and met their gaze, the responses would be mixed. Some would offer an encouraging smile or a slight nod of acknowledgment, while others would quickly look away in obvious discomfort. Even good friends did not seem to know what to say to him, except "I'm sorry".
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to block the image of his wife's fatal hemorrhage from his mind. How could this have happened? In this day and age of modern technology, women weren't supposed to die having babies!
A sudden burst of laughter drew his attention, and his eyes narrowed dangerously as his gaze fell upon the one person in Hazzard whose presence offended him the most.
J. D. "Boss" Hogg was at the kitchen table, helping himself to the smorgasbord of food. Someone had thoughtfully brought plastic plates and silverware, so that the Duke family would not have the chore of washing dishes later, and the plastic plate that was clutched in Boss's hand was piled so high with food that Luke feared it would collapse from the weight. As he watched, Boss snatched a large slice of ham and, apparently reaching Luke's conclusion about the stamina of the plastic plate, he simply stuffed it in his mouth. As always, he was dressed in his white suite, looking like a cream puff in a sea of black suits.
His wife, Lulu, also sampled the variety of food, but in a more mannered fashion, and unlike her husband, she had dressed more appropriately for the occasion in a black print dress and black shoes. By contrast, Luke was genuinely fond of the overweight Lulu. In spite of the corrupted city government her husband ran, she was an unwavering supporter of the Duke family.
Lulu's brother, Rosco P. Coltrane, the county sheriff, followed along behind like an obedient puppy, sampling everything that Boss was enjoying. Initially a good lawman, Rosco had fallen into the corrupt pattern of his brother-in-law, and was co-conspirator to most of Boss's schemes.
Resentment surged through Luke as he observed the offending guest, and he felt his fist clinch at his side, wishing he could throttle the pudgy little man right then and there. He knew that the only reason Boss had come calling was for the food, but if ever there was a man unworthy of joining them for Cindy's funeral, it was Boss Hogg. For many years, he had been a burr under the Duke's saddle and a thorn in their sides. He had attempted to cheat them out of their farm, using one reprehensible scheme after another. He had devised plots in an attempt to revoke Bo's and Luke's probation, an act which would have sent them to prison. He had tampered with their vehicles during races. And he had attempted to blame many of his own illegal doings on them. For him to have the audacity to show his face at Cindy's funeral was an insult to her memory.
"Excellent ham," Boss exclaimed loudly with a mouth full of food. He reached for another slice. "Here, try some of this," he said to Lulu. "This is wonderful!"
Disgusted, Luke turned toward the door, but stopped when he felt something brush against his pant leg. Looking down, he found Flash, Rosco's aging basset hound, gazing up at him with drooping, sorrowful brown eyes, as if she understood his grief. She was still Rosco's constant companion, even though her advanced years were reflected in the gray hairs on her face and the obvious cataracts on her eyes. As he gazed down at her, she offered a tentative wag of her thick tail.
Sinking down on one knee, Luke solemnly stroked the silky hair on the old dog's head, and she pressed a warm, moist tongue against his wrist, as if trying to convey her sympathy.
Behind him, Rosco chortled with glee when he managed to snatch a tempting piece of fried chicken before Boss could grab it.
"Tell me something, Flash," he said quietly. "How did you ever hook up with that old fool, huh?"
Flash tossed her head back and uttered a soft baying sound in response.
"Ya don't say?" Luke replied, an attempt at levity that he did not feel. He was too tired and too sad to find any humor. Giving the hound a pat on her soft head, he stood up again and cast a quick glance over his shoulder as his hand rested on the doorknob. For the moment, everyone's attention appeared to be focused elsewhere, so he opened the door and slipped quietly outside.
Jesse saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, and he turned toward it just as his grieving nephew pulled the door closed behind him. The proud smile faded from the Duke patriarch's lips and his finger stilled against the baby's soft cheek, understanding the sorrow that his eldest nephew was experiencing.
Free of the constant din of conversation, Luke paused on the stoop to inhale a deep, soul-cleansing breath of fresh country air. The sun was high in the sky, but a low black cloud lay on the horizon, offering the promise of life-giving rain to the farmers' crops. Within a week of the rain showers, new grass would sprout all over the countryside, greening up the landscape. No matter what the misfortune, life would continue without missing a step, paying no mind to the fact that Luke's heart was breaking.
Tucking his forefinger behind the knot of his necktie, he tugged at it to loosen it as he stepped away from the house and waded through the maze of parked cars that filled the yard, walking toward the rail fence that formed the parameter of the small pasture where Maudine, Jesse's old bay mule, grazed in the warm sunshine with the goats.
Folding his arms on the top rail, he gazed across the farm on which he had been raised and allowed his mind to drive back to his youth. Even though he had been orphaned young, his had been a good life, a life filled with hard, honest work, childish play, and his share of misfortune, triumph, and tragedy, and many of the best years had been spent on this farm. Uncle Jesse and Aunt Martha had done their best to provide for all three of their young dependents, and Luke could not have asked for a better childhood.
But as the years had gone by and he and his cousins grew up, the time came for them to set out on their own lives. Much to their uncle's joy, Bo and Luke had finally settled down and taken wives. But cruel fate had intervened, and Luke now found himself alone again.
Heaving a deep sigh, he leaned forward to rest his forehead on his arms. Without Cindy, nothing mattered any more.
Jesse glanced at the clock on the mantle, and then looked toward the door again. It had been nearly twenty minutes since Luke had stepped outside. Throughout their lives, he had always insisted on giving the children the time and space to work out their own problems, often against the gently nurturing preferences of his wife, Martha, but on occasion, there came a time when it was necessary to intervene, and Jesse decided that this was one of those times.
Rising from the arm of the sofa, he approached the window overlooking the yard, and his eyes settled on his grieving nephew. The younger man's despondency was apparent in his slumped posture, and the way he occasionally dragged his fingers through his hair in apparent despair. Jesse gave a slight shake of his head. It was difficult to witness the suffering of any of the children he had raised, but it was a specific understanding as a widower himself, that made Luke's pain so difficult to watch.
Noticing the concern on his uncle's face, Bo excused himself from his conversation with Cooter, and wove his way through the crowd of guests toward the window. "Uncle Jesse?" he asked.
There was no need to elaborate. Jesse understood completely the question behind the simple query, but he did not answer verbally. Instead, he tipped his head toward the window, and, following the direction of his gaze, Bo looked outside to see what had attracted his attention. As he watched, his cousin, still leaning heavily on the rail fence, kicked absently at a tuft of grass beneath the bottom rail, a gesture that could reflect either boredom or frustration or both.
"This has all been pretty hard on him, but he's holdin' up pretty well, ain't he?" Bo said, admiringly. "Ya know, I have yet t' see 'im even shed a tear."
"That's what worries me," Jesse responded, quietly. "He's keepin' it all bottled up inside where it don't do nothin' 'cept fester. It ain't healthy havin' all them emotions fightin' t' get out. Eventually, it's gonna reach the breakin' point, an' I just hope one of us is there t' help pick up the pieces."
Bo shrugged, unconvinced that the signs pointed to his resilient cousin having any kind of a breakdown. "I don't know, Uncle Jesse. Luke's always kept his grief to hisself. He's lost good friends 'n other people who meant a lot to him, but he always dealt with it his own way, and he's always come through just fine."
"I know 'e has, but this is different. This time, he's lost someone who means the world to 'im, someone 'e would'a died for, someone he hoped to grow old with. That's a whole diff'rent kind o' love."
Bo cast a quick glance across the room at Lisa Mae, who was smiling patiently while Cooter enthusiastically described the newer, faster car engines that were on the market now, and felt a rush of the very love his uncle had just described. "Yeah, I know," he agreed. "I'd be plumb lost if anything happened to Lisa Mae."
Jesse patted Bo's arm with great affection. "Ya got yerself a good gal there, Bo."
"Both o' you boys did good." He turned his attention back to his other nephew. "Did ya know he ain't even touched that younin' o' his?"
A slight frown puckered Bo's brow as his gaze darted quickly to the baby, who was now being passed around from one woman to another, with Daisy following along protectively. "No, I didn't know that. Do you think he blames the baby for Cindy's death?"
Jesse pondered that thought for a moment. He hated to think that it might be the case, but he had no explanation for his behavior. "That's hard t' say. Luke ain't one t' go blamin' a helpless baby for somethin' like that, but it's for certain that somethin's festerin' inside that head o' his. I jes' don't know what it is, yet. We talked him into stayin' with us for a few days, so's we could keep an eye on 'im; ya know, make sure he's takin' proper care of hisself and that younin', but 'e picks at his food, an' I hear him pacing the floor durin' the night. He ain't eaten more'n a few bites in two days, and he ain't sleeping, neither. He's wore plumb out. I'm worried about him, Bo."
Bo nodded. He could see that in the worry lines on his uncle's careworn face. "Want me t' talk to 'im?"
"No. You boys've always been practically inseparable ever since ya first come to me, but 'less 'n ya been through somethin' like this yerself, you cain't begin to understand what he's feelin'. It's a hurt that goes deeper than the heart; it cuts right to the soul, like a part of yer own self has died right along with yer loved one. Best I should speak to 'im."
Bo nodded his agreement. For the first time in his life, he had no earthly idea what he could have said to his cousin to cheer him up, for he still had the thing Luke had lost; a wife he loved dearly.
The older man opened the door and stepped outside, and walked toward his nephew. He was moving a bit slower these days, plagued by the arthritis that had crept into his spine, aggravated by a lifetime of hard work, but he never complained to anyone. Not Jesse Duke. Pride was a powerful thing, and Jesse had been given his full helping.
When he reached his nephew's side, he stood silently for several moments observing him. There was a strangely haunted look in Luke's blue eyes as he gazed out over the fields in which he had worked and played during his youth, but Jesse was careful to notice that those eyes were still dry.
Luke sensed his presence, and spoke first. "Sorry to leave the party, Uncle Jesse. I just couldn't stand bein' inside that house a minute longer. Too many people givin' me those looks, like they don't know what to say to me . . . And Hogg 'n his lackey pollutin' the place with their attendance."
Jesse's voice was gently reproachful. "Now, Luke, mustn't speak ill of yer elders like that. J. D. came by t' pay his respects."
He was startled by the flash of annoyance in Luke's blue eyes when he glanced quickly at him, then turned his attention to the fields of gently waving pasture grass. "Respects, hell," he retorted, gruffly. "He came by for the food, 'n you know it."
"Yer jes' tired, Luke. That's why yer temper's so frazzled. I heard ya pacing again las' night. You ain't sleepin' proper."
That was a fact, and Luke gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. Cindy's death haunted every waking hour, but the horrible, vivid dreams were the worst. The only way to avoid them, it seemed, was to stay awake. "I just haven't been able to sleep much," he replied. He placed one foot on the bottom rail and worked it back and forth, revealing that it was loose. "I'll fix this for ya before I leave," he offered, then raised his voice again as the topic returned to Boss Hogg. "That man don't belong here, Uncle Jesse. His bein' here is an insult."
"Cindy was a good woman and I'm sure she'd be forgivin' of his presence, but regardless, he's here and we'll show our good manners by bein' polite." His gentle but firm tone of voice left no room for debating the subject, but he paused briefly, providing ample time for Luke to respond. When he didn't, he said, "Luke, I know what yer feelin' right now. I went through the same thing when my Martha passed on, but I promise ya, things'll get better."
Luke was silent for a long moment as he pondered his uncle's words. The words were intended to offer comfort in the fact that as life went on, the pain of loss would ease, but at that moment, Luke could not see that far ahead. He could not imagine facing a life without Cindy. "I don't know if I can go on without her, Jesse. I never imagined that I could love someone as much as I love her. Without her, I feel so empty inside, like I'm just a hollow shell. I pray every night that the good Lord will take me too, so I can be with her, but He ain't answerin' my prayers."
A chill shivered down Jesse's spine at the unexpected depth of Luke's grief. Reaching out, he placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, only to have the hand shaken off as his nephew abruptly moved away, fearing that too much sympathy and understanding from his uncle would cause him to break down completely, and he was not yet ready for that.
Jesse's rheumy old eyes followed the younger man as he moved away a few feet, but did not pursue it, choosing to give him the space he apparently needed. "He gave you yer answer, son. It may not be the answer ya want right now, but it's the answer ya got. You have responsibilities right here, and yer primary responsibility is takin' care of that youngin' o' yours. That little boy needs his daddy."
Luke blinked rapidly several times, and even though his face was turned away from him, Jesse knew he was blinking back tears, the first hint of emotion that he had seen out of him. Let it out, son; just let it out, the older man silently advised.
Ignoring Jesse's unspoken advice, Luke drew a deep breath and reclaimed his composure. "He's got you and Bo and Daisy and Lisa Mae. He don't need me."
"That ain't no way t' be talkin', Luke," Jesse said. "Bo 'n Lisa Mae are gonna be havin' their own youngin' soon, 'n Daisy's gonna be headin' back to college in a few days. An' I'm too old t' be carin' for a newborn. That little one is your responsibility, Luke. You're his daddy."
Luke sighed, heavily, but did not answer except to shake his head, slightly. Again, Jesse was aware of that haunted look in his nephew's eyes, a look he had never seen before. This went beyond losing Cindy. What was it that was torturing him so?
"I know yer hurtin'; yer hurtin' real bad. You feel like everything good and pure in the world has been snuffed out. I loved that girl too. I loved her 'cause of the joy you found in yer life with her, but I knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't want you doin' nothin' foolish. She'd want you to be here raisin' yer son. That little boy is the physical evidence of the love you both shared, yet you ain't so much as touched 'im. You ain't even given 'im a name!"
Luke squirmed uncomfortably under his uncle's stern gaze and mildly condemning words. He wanted to unburden himself of the guilt he felt, but did not even know where to begin.
Jesse knew that he was struggling with some unresolved inner demon. "Talk to me, Luke," he encouraged. "Tell me what it is that's eatin' you up inside."
Luke squirmed again, knowing that he could never explain it in a way that Jesse would understand. Jesse thought he understood his grief, but he couldn't have any idea what it was like watching the life's blood gush out of the body of the partner you had chosen for life. "Every time I look at him, I see the way he came into this world in a rush of blood. Cindy's blood. She died giving life to my son."
Jesse's expression hardened and his voice was gruff as he scolded, "Now you listen t' me, Lucas Duke, and you listen good! That tiny baby ain't responsible for what happened to his mama! Don't you even think about blamin' him for that!"
"I don't," Luke answered quietly. "I blame myself. It's my fault that Cindy's dead, an' every time I look at that baby, I'm reminded of the fact that I'm the one who got her pregnant. I'm the one who caused her death!" Tears glistened in his eyes, but he brushed a hand quickly across his eyes to stop them. "She wanted a baby so bad, but I hadn't given in, she'd still be alive!"
With those words hanging in the air behind him, Luke slipped between the fence rails and walked into the pasture.
"That's just plumb foolishness, Luke!" Jesse called after him, stunned by Luke's startling revelation. "You ain't thinkin' clear! You weren't responsible for her dyin' like that! Luke!"
"I don't want to talk right now, Jesse," Luke said over his shoulder. His voice had calmed, indicating that he had regained his self-control. "Go back inside."
Jesse gazed after him for a long time, hoping he would come back so he could reason with him, but his nephew obviously wanted no part in that. He had come outside to find some time to himself, so the Duke family patriarch decided to respect that desire for the moment. "All right, son. We'll let it go fer now. But we're gonna have a good long talk about this later."
Luke knew the old man meant it. There was no running away from Jesse Duke, so he would eventually have to face it. Just not right now.
Casting one final glance over his shoulder at the despondent man, Jesse returned to the house.